Saturday, October 6, 2018

Flowers for Algernon

There are some novels that stick with me. These are books and stories that seem personal and talismanic, capturing some essence of my own life, speaking over and over to something about my life in different ways through time. Whether or not these are the best books ever written is unclear to me. I am too personally involved. My short list has contained Catcher in the Rye (inability to adjust to a broken world, especially while broken), Pride and Prejudice (deep love teaching humility), Mice and Men (a reflection on my life working with a library automated check in machine), Kafka's short story The Hunger Artist (my own sometimes confusing desire to make art and the equally confusing reactions of others to it), and Flowers for Algernon.

What is it about FlowerS for Algernon?

I think it is the story of everything that happens to us in life, and the story of life itself.

Charlie is a person with an IQ of 68 who understands little of the world around him. But he is enrolled in some sort of experimental procedure which slowly makes him into a genius. Alas, the effect is revealed to be only temporary and Charlie slowly reverts back to his former capabilities.

Everything that opens up to us is a miracle, hitherto unimagined, and we are made magnificent just in the witness of it, in our soaring possibility, but it all begins to slip away from the moment it reaches its height. All our powers meet something greater, and, helplessly, we are driven back where we began, watching it all slip away.

Where we are at any given time in that trajectory is the question, isn't it?


  1. OMG I haven't thought of that book in a very long time. Yes, it's hard to explain why certain books. I have read A River Runs Through It a dozen times or more, and the end always floors me by simultaneous devastation and healing.

    It really is this moment that matters, isn't it? I mean, my calculating brain says things like, "now's the time to do X or Y, as you probably have a couple decades of good health and energy," and meanwhile these mountains and that turkey vulture over there, and those humans around me are somehow missed.

    It reminds me of the chilling third act of Our Town, when Emily comes back from the dead and is able to relive one day of her life, though the dead tell her it's a bad idea. "Choose an uneventful day," they warn her when she's determined to go. But she chooses her 12th birthday, and the pain of being in the moment and living with the living is just too much. Holding her mother's face in her hands and saying, "look at me."

    On another note about art, we went to see Florence and the Machine in concert last week. She sang a song called "Patricia," about Patty Smith, her muse. Part of it was about toxic masculinity, and then there's a turn, a minor chord, when she sings, "What a wonderful thing to love, What a wonderful thing to love, What a wonderful thing to love," and it was a moment of such pure art and truth and beauty and simplicity it is almost unbearable.


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